Washington, D.C.'s Fugazi has carried the torch of brutal honesty and humility for seven albums over almost 15 years. The Argument, their eighth, is a record that perfectly captures the diseased and decaying state our nation was in well before the events of Sept. 11. What's more striking, though, is how chillingly accurate the album is as a portrait of the emotions those events have brought to the fore.
"Hey! We want our violence doubled ... the national temper/You know it's written on your face ... don't you know it's all the rage/Don't you feel it now?" asks singer Guy Picciotto on "Life and Limb." It would be too easy to dismiss these words as coincidence (they were written before American flags emblazoned every SUV in every strip-mall-cookie-cutter-housing-development nationwide)--it's obvious that the band has a pretty good understanding of the "values" most Americans hold dear.
And The Argument tears into these values immediately. After a haunting, minute-long violin-and-white-noise intro comes "Cashout," which, besides containing one of the best riffs the band's ever written, is a timely diatribe against city government's role in urban sprawl: "Development wants, development gets/It's official/Development wants this neighborhood gone so the city just wants the same." In "Oh," the globalization perpetrated by American corporations gets a tongue-lashing, with Picciotto moaning, over sharp bursts of guitar, "Number one in acquisitions/Now there is no foreign soil ... Memo to the partners/I'm pissing on your modems/I'm shredding all the stock." Bassist Joe Lally, on "The Kill," makes a rare appearance on vocals to describe prison systems and the horrific conditions on death row. But the song's refrain--"I'm not a citizen"--also speaks to those Americans stuck in an increasingly un-Democratic system in which our voices (and votes) no longer matter.
For a society as spoiled and jaded as ours, it's easy to laugh at sincerity and write it off as naive. It's also difficult to combine political commentary and earth-shaking rock without one of them suffering.
But don't let all these politics and "deep" issues ruin any appreciation for how much this record rocks. Fugazi is not just a group of dour wordsmiths. In addition to their lyrical activism, they've always challenged the traditional boundaries of rock music. And, after seven albums, they've only gotten better at creating huge riffs, intricate rhythms and strange melodies. The chattering screams of guitars on "Full Disclosure" come out of a singsong chorus to complement Picciotto's howl of "I want out," while the thundering outro to "Ex-Spectator" is a fully realized variation of a theme Fugazi has been perfecting since "Waiting Room," the first song on their first album. Rather than losing their creative edge, the band challenges themselves to find new ways to make powerful music.
Fugazi was formed in the ultra-conservative era of Reagan and the Cold War, inspiring countless people to think about democracy and civil rights as things worth defending. As we rush toward a new Cold War and a country increasingly reluctant to utilize intelligent self-analysis, we need more outspoken musicians like Fugazi. Hopefully Picciotto's defiant call to "fuck your fucked directives" will resonate with listeners who've been numbed and medicated into accepting the unacceptable options--musical and societal--put in front of them.